Observation is a systematic data collection approach. Researchers use all of their senses to examine people in natural settings or naturally occurring situations. Some qualitative research methodologies, in particular ethnography, rely on such participant and non-participant observationas an essential data source. Having its origins in anthropology and ethnology, nowadays social sciences, in general, increasingly apply observation techniques. This session is designed to provide a brief introduction to this well-established data collection method often applied to study cultural phenomena.
The benefits of systematically collecting participant and non-participant observation data is that it fosters an in-depth and rich understanding of a phenomenon, situation and/or setting, and the behaviour of the participants in that setting. As such, a deeper immersion or at least a prolonged involvement in a setting helps you to develop rapport and might further lead to a free and open discussion with people. In entrepreneurship and innovation management research, observations are part of the foundation for theory and proposition/hypothesis development. These are just the most obvious benefits of including observation data in a research project.
But what should you observe, when being in a field-setting? That, of course, depends on your research question. Nonetheless, observation data often involves the following:
- clearly expressed, self-conscious notations of how observing is done
- methodical and tactical improvisation in order to develop a full understanding of the setting of interest
- imparting attention in ways that is in some sense 'standardized'
While one may consider digital devices to collect observation data, the most typical form is writing fieldnotes. When browsing the web, you will find numerous examples on how to prepare them, so that they are most helpful when analysing your data later on. One possible way is to consider developing a template to guide your data collection from observations. In particular, templates can be useful when data is collected by inexperienced observers. However, at the same time, templates can deflect attention from unnamed categories, unimagined and unanticipated activities that can be very important to understanding a phenomenon and a setting. Therefore, it is important to be conscious and reflective upon one’s strategy of how to collect observation data.
Emerson, R., Fretz, R. I. and L. L. Shaw(1995). Writing Ethnographic Field Notes.University of Chicago Press. (Chapters 1 and 2 are uploaded on MyCourses)
Roulston, K. (2017). “Tips for observing and taking field notes in qualitative studies”. Available online:
If you are interested to learn more about observation and field-work, look at the additional readings:
Van Maanen, J. (2011). Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography. (2ndedition). University of Chicago Press.
1. Moerman – Introduction to Ethnography (same as in Topic 3)
2. Moerman – Views on Observation Data
3. Moerman – Collecting Data from Participant Observation
4. Moerman - Field Notes
Exercise 2.1 – Comprehend
After getting acquainted with the materials (readings, videos), discuss the advantages and disadvantages theoretical knowledge, prolonged stay in a setting and fieldnote templates can have for collecting observation data, for instance, in ethnographic research.
Exercise 2.2 – Critique
Read the “methods” section in Stigliani and Ravasi (2012), and explain how observation data and field notes are collected and used in the analysis. How does observation data help to answer their research question?
Please check. Did you gain an understanding of the following?
- what are field notes
- the usefulness of field notes in answering some research questions
- the difference between writing jotting notes, detailed field notes and memos
If you can answer everything with a confident Yes! then you have achieved the learning objective of this session.